MORE THAN LIFE ITSELF
A Love Story by
Diane Stark (McConnell) Sanfilippo
Chapter 62 – Our Voyage Continues
Each day seemed to be the carbon copy of the day before, with only the food varying from one meal to another, and for Billy even that did not happen very often. The waiter soon discovered Billy’s peculiar eating habits and would always suggest something on the menu that he thought he might enjoy, and Billy learned to take his advice, eating filets, prime rib roast, and fried prawns. Lunch was simpler, although I always tried something different, Billy ordered simply for himself and for Michael, who was increasingly developing his father’s odd habits. Margie continued to sleep most of the voyage; obviously still feeling the slow motion of the ship or the humming of the huge engines, although, surprisingly, I now had my ‘sea legs’ and could not even tell I was aboard a ship.
After each meal, we walked the decks and looked out at the sea, thrilled when a school of porpoise ran alongside the huge ship and several times with the water clear and the sea smooth, we saw enormous stingrays lurking in the shadow of the hull. I never tired of looking at the sea, and could sit for hours in a deckchair with a book in one hand and the baby in her infant seat by my side. On the other hand, it was not long before Billy, with a lack of entertainment geared to his tastes or our budget became bored, so he spent endless hours running behind Michael as our always-busy son explored the ship, often stopping to talk to other passengers. I knew that Billy was anxious to get to Schofield and his duties with a ‘real’ company of soldiers to lead, and Michael gave him little time to relax and read. On one afternoon when Michael had been particularly busy, Billy sat down on the deckchair beside me and said, “Do you think that I could trade children with you for a few minutes?”
I knew that he was just teasing since he realized how tiring the entire trip had been for me, and he felt that I was still not strong enough to handle our son. I had to laugh and replied, “Well, if I can do it 9+ months pregnant, then surely five days aboard ship is not too much for an Airborne Ranger!”
He just grinned and said that he wished that we had bought that leash after all, although often he had voiced his own disgust when he saw children trussed like a dog. “It makes me think that they (the parents) are more concerned with their own activities than they are with wanting to keep up with their children. They might as well tie them to a stake in the yard!”
He was that adamant about his dislike of a tether for his son, so day after day, he continued to try to keep up with Michael, and found himself exhausted by time for the evening meal. After midday dinner, we would walk around the entire ship twice since both of us realized that our clothes were becoming a tad tight from all the rich food. After our walk, we would take Michael down to the cabin for a nap, hoping that the sea air had made him as sleepy as it did us, and if successful, Billy would tap lightly on my door and we would make love in the middle of the day. Once both of us were fully satisfied, Billy opened the door between our rooms, lay in the bed with me, and napped by my side. I loved having him in my bed, even though it was narrow, but I would curl up in his strong arms and cherish the time we could privately be together. If I could not sleep, I would read, but Billy would sleep as if still worn out from Ranger School, the long drive, and keeping up with Michael.
I too was tired, but not a sleepy tired. I was still exhausted from the difficult birth, preparing to move, and the long trip so soon afterwards, but I could rest without sleeping, and often did so. Mine was a physical tiredness, and I was becoming a bit worried that I could not seem to shake it. After all, Margie was now almost seven weeks old, although she looked like she was three months old, and her mother was feeling more 40 than 22. Perhaps nursing was also making me tired since I knew that what nutrients I took in would go to the baby first, so I tried to eat healthy and avoid anything that would harm her through my milk. She was thriving with her cereal, fruit and my nursing, and she refused all formula in a bottle, spitting it out with the first taste, so except for the strained foods, the rest was entirely up to me. Could anything as wonderful as nursing my infant be so exhausting? Sometimes I was so tired I felt like I was in a daze, and Billy seemed to sense this and would take the baby from me while holding onto Michael with the other hand. Often he would look at his children sleeping and with a huge sigh, say that we had the ‘perfect’ family with a boy and a girl, but I knew that there would be more little McConnell boys someday, and this tiny girl would remain our one and only miracle. I also knew that Billy would dote on her, and spoil her since she had him wrapped around her little finger since birth, and often I would watch as he just stared at her with all the wonderment he had first experienced the moment he realized that he had fathered a daughter.
I promised him that she would not just disappear if he took his eyes off her for one moment, but he would softly brush her downy fine baby hair, and again ask, “How could I ever want for anything?”
Silently I thought, “I want Vietnam to go away.”
We had been pleased when we learned that our traveling companions, the other officer and his wife, played Bridge, and that became an entertainment medium, and sometimes there were even cartoons for the children and we could play bridge in the next room. Michael did not much like having us out of his sight, particularly his daddy, and I feared that when Billy went back to work and would be in the field for long periods, Michael would resume some of his naughty behavior in order to get his attention. He did not seem to care if it was good attention or bad attention; he just wanted attention from his daddy. Although he was still very much his mommy’s boy, he had gotten used to having his daddy around during Billy’s long leave after Ranger School, then again after Margie was born, the long trip and the five days in the motel in San Pedro, and lastly on the voyage where the ‘men’ in the family had their own room. This was how we had explained it to Michael, who was reluctant to part from me, especially since I took the baby. So he had become accustomed to Billy being with us all of the time, and I was afraid that we were all in for a rude awakening when we finally reached Hawaii, and Billy resumed earning his meager pay. I wondered how I would keep up with an infant and a daredevil son, but I would not be the first mother who wished for eyes in the back of her head! Better yet, a clone! That is as long as I did not have to share my husband!
The days passed swiftly for me, although Billy thought that if we stayed on the ship much longer, he would have to disembark in a cargo net from all the meals, and he tried his best to make sure that he did not miss any one of them, except for the ‘Early Bird’ breakfast! He loved the buffets with their array of hors d’oeuvres, and the ice sculpture that graced the center of the table since mounds of fresh chilled prawns and other delicacies usually surrounded it. He especially indulged on the rich pastries, often filling his plate with a dozen or more, and Michael ate mounds and mounds of ice cream sundaes. Yes, if we did not get off this ship soon, we would both waddle down the gangplank!
Except for two incidents, the voyage went smoothly after the first night’s storm, and Billy and I kept busy with the children, and making love both day and night whenever possible. The first incident occurred when Billy became very angry with me when I did not order prawns for Michael’s supper since he knew that he could eat what Michael did not, but Michael did not want prawns again, and he asked for fried chicken. Rather than have Billy angered by his son’s temper tantrum, which surely would follow if he did not get his chicken, I faced his father’s wrath, and indeed that was exactly what I received. Billy was livid. Of course, that was the night the ship’s photographer reached our table and in one of the photos, Billy has his ‘mad’ face on with jaw set, lips drawn tight, while glaring at me with anger. In the other photo, Billy is glaring at the camera while I am holding up the baby so she can be in the picture, but she was not happy being wakened, and she was crying. A happy family scene, not quite! Although by the time we had finished supper, Billy’s anger had dissipated into a mild storm cloud, and his jaw was no longer set in dead silence. In fact, as Michael ran on the deck, Billy looked at me, carrying our daughter in my arms, and said, “You know, little girl, no matter how angry I get with you, I can’t stay that way very long. I guess I just love you too much!”
“Oh no, its not that you love me too much,” I replied, “it’s just that you want me to be in a good mood after Michael goes to sleep!”
While he disagreed with my interpretation of his lack of anger, he waited for me to catch up to him, and right on the deck, with other passengers watching, he kissed me right on the mouth, and whispered, “Oh, but you are so wrong, and I just wanted to prove it in front of everyone. If you insist, I will get down on my knees and beg forgiveness, right here, right now.” As he started to get down on one knee, I told him that he was embarrassing me, so instead he once again held me in his arms and said, “I love you more than life itself.” With these words, our disagreement was forgotten, except, of course, when I look at those photos and remember.
The second incident happened our last night at sea and I still cringe as I recall that moment. I had taken the afternoon off, while the children were sleeping, and had my hair done. Billy was particularly pleased with the results, and it did look nice. The hairdresser had teased, sprayed, and sprayed some more understanding that hair as fine as mine did not hold curl and would become straight by morning if it were not stiff as a board. Billy did not like that he could not run his fingers through my hair, but since he liked the way it looked, he was mollified into waiting for another night as I guarded my hairdo with a net. Certainly, it would not stop him from wanting me, and I knew that we would make love for hours, knowing this was our last night aboard, with the moon streaming into the porthole window in the tiny cabin that had been my home for the past few days.
Anyway, we were on our way to supper, Billy dressed in his uniform for the last night on board, and I in the pink and white striped seersucker dress with lace at the cuffs and neck. Michael looked adorable in his outfit with the short pants, jacket, and bow tie, and we seemed such a fine family. As we left the cabin, Billy reached out to Michael to take his hand and prevent him from running off down the corridors by himself, possibly getting lost in the process. Michael first drew his hand back and held it with the other hand not allowing Billy to take it, and I have the photo to prove it! Then when Billy tried again to bring his son under control, Michael struck at Billy’s hand and fell to the floor in a fit of rage. Billy jerked him up, totally humiliated by his son’s behavior as the other passengers passed us on the way to the dining room, and without thinking, he swung at his son, catching him over his right eye with the backside of his class ring. At once Michael’s brow started to swell and bruise, and Billy was horrified, hardly able to believe that he had done this, and he rushed into the cabin and brought back some ice in a washcloth. Michael, still not completely under control, squirmed away from him and hid in my skirt, but finally allowed his father to press the cloth to his face.
“I’m going to throw this ring overboard!” Billy uttered in sheer disbelief that he had bruised his son. I insisted that it was an accident and would never happen again now that he was aware of the potential danger that he could hurt him badly, but he kept saying repeatedly, “I’m going to throw it overboard!”
Finally, in exasperation I said, “You most certainly are not! Not after I took most of the back pay from my unemployment check to pay Pop back for that ring!”
“You did what?” he asked, and I told him the whole story. Afterwards, he promised not to throw it overboard since it meant so much to me, but he also picked up his son, now no longer crying, and promised him that he would never, ever again strike him in the face, although he might spank his little round bottom if he ever drew his hand back again, or struck his daddy.
Michael buried his head into his father’s shoulder, and with Billy carrying his son, and me the baby, we went on into the dining room, late for the first time.
Michael now has that ring, and he wore it for a long, long time, and knows the story about how close it came to resting on the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. I asked him to remember that story when he gets angry with his own children, and to never, ever, no matter how upset he gets, and he does have his father’s temper, strike them in the face. I firmly believe that is what God made fat padded little bottoms for, and a spanking does not harm them if not inflicted in anger. Michael’s eye did bruise, and when asked, Billy was far too embarrassed to tell anyone how Michael had hurt his eye, and Michael never did tell either perhaps even at that young age realizing how badly his father felt. It was a lesson that was long overdue for Billy, and from that day on, we never had to argue over what I thought was too harsh a punishment for our son, although there were times when Billy and I both spanked his little bottom, and each time he well deserved it. Something changed that day in Billy and I could see it in his eyes. He was too kind to want to hurt anyone or anything, and I worried how he would feel when he had to kill in Vietnam. However, I knew that if he felt it was his duty, and he said that if it meant his “ass” on the line, he would do what he had to do, like all good soldiers and leaders.
That night, he read extra long to Michael and I wondered if he would even come to my cabin, but I need not fear since as soon as he was sure that his son was sleeping soundly, there was a tap on my door, and my handsome husband took me in his arms and cried. As I held him, he shook with sobs, saying repeatedly that he never would strike his son again, but I told him that he had to be reasonable, and again told him that what happened that night was an accident, which would make him more wary. Assuring him that I knew, and he knew, that Michael would need a spanking every now and then, he calmed down and said that he had never meant to hurt him, and to comfort him I said, “I know, darling, I know.”
That one incident did not change Michael into a less willful child, and he was to prove this over, and over again, as he constantly tried the patience of both his father and me.
“After all, look who his father is,” I said, gently, stroking his shaved head, as I led him to my berth.
We made love for hours realizing this would our last night at sea, and when we finally were both too tired to keep it up, I curled up beside him and we talked about everything but what had happened this evening. We talked about finding a little house on the beach, although that was pretty much an impossible dream since our ‘cost of living’ allowance would certainly not cover living in luxury, which surely would eliminate any, and all beach houses.
“Well, I can dream, can’t I?” he said, and I agreed, that yes we both could dream and that sometimes, like with our infant daughter, and even further back, our own chance meeting, dreams did come true.
“After all, I have you,” I said as I kissed him again.
“And I have you,” Billy replied, “and sometimes I wonder what I did to deserve such happiness.”
I almost cried when I heard his words because while he had always whispered beautiful words in my ear while we were making love, this time we were not making love, just lying in each other’s arms. I was almost beginning to believe that he really did love me ‘more than life itself’.